Talking about drugs can be difficult for parents.  Talking about marijuana can bring an entirely new level of challenges. Due to layers of controversy, the topic of marijuana, i.e. hemp, THC, CBD, concentrates, and medicinal advantages can place anyone at a loss for words when speaking with our youth. The question of how to talk to teens about marijuana can be an even greater challenge. Many parents also find that between increasing legalization of marijuana and their own experimentation at younger ages, conversations about marijuana are at the very least uncomfortable and, in many cases, can feel downright hypocritical.

But as with diaper changes and other unpleasant parenting tasks, some that are necessary are more difficult to accomplish. Talking about marijuana may be one such task, but knowing how to be effective can be key in having an informed and productive talk about marijuana with your teen.

More than just a plant

Before we can talk about the “whys” of the issue,  let’s look at the “whats” of the issue. That is, what exactly is marijuana? The simple answer – that marijuana is a plant that has been around for years – is not entirely accurate and doesn’t grasp the magnitude of this always morphing trend. Today’s marijuana is not the same as it was even a decade ago.

The FDA classifies marijuana as a synthetic drug. A synthetic drug is one that is manmade and does not occur naturally. How can a plant not occur naturally? Marijuana growing and mass production occur through modification, engineering, and selective breeding. Without going through all of the science behind flora manipulation, the marijuana that is grown today is not the naturally occurring plant that it once was. It has been manipulated beyond recognition.

Marijuana’s active ingredients are called cannabinoids. The  two main types are THC (tetrahydrocannabinol, a crystalline compound) and the cannabidiol CBD, which is a “phytocannabinoid.” THC is what gives the mind-altering experience, the “high” that most people normally associate with marijuana. It is also the most prominent chemical in marijuana today. There are about seven other cannabinoids in marijuana, but none of those other cannabinoids even come close to the potency of TCH in marijuana.

In its once unaltered form, marijuana contained 2-7% THC. Based on samples of confiscated marijuana, researchers estimate the THC levels in marijuana have increased 50-75% since the 1970s. Not only the plants but the seeds themselves in today’s marijuana have been altered, so even homegrown or organic marijuana is classified as a synthesized chemical. Marijuana is no longer the “simple plant” that it may once have been. Are there medical benefits to using marijuana?

Currently, under Federal Law, marijuana is listed as a Schedule I drug, which means it has no medicinal value. The science and medical world, however, have seen compelling results with marijuana in the treatment of seizure disorders and various other neurological or pain disorders. This is due to the cannabinoid CBD. CBD is the portion of marijuana that provides medicinal value.

THC, on the other hand, is the recreational side of marijuana. Some marijuana is higher in THC and lower in CBD, which results in people experiencing the “high.” Some marijuana is higher in CBD and lower in THC. It does not give as much of a high, if any at all, and has been widely recognized for its medical benefits. 

Marijuana that is available on the street tends to be high in THC and low in CBD. It is recreational marijuana, and it has no medicinal value.

More dispensaries are cropping up throughout the country as they offer thousands of strains containing little CBD all the way to pure CBD concentrates. This is where one of the challenges lies.  Explaining to kids that some marijuana is medically beneficial and some is not can be tricky as even the most well-versed experts struggle in helping kids to understand the difference.

Sometimes teens claim that they use marijuana for their “personal medicine.” There are multiple problems with this statement. First, the marijuana that they are purchasing likely has little to no medicinal value. (It is usually marijuana that is high in THC and low in CBD.) Second, teens who really do struggle with depression, anxiety, and other mental disorders who use marijuana as “medicine” are masking their symptoms- or in most cases, they are exacerbating them. Marijuana does not cure depression or anxiety. It increases the severity and frequency of unpleasant feelings between marijuana “doses.”

Research supports that teens who may require mental health assistance are more likely to develop depression and anxiety than those who don’t use marijuana in the first place.  In addition, teens with a propensity toward schizophrenia, either through genetics or childhood abuse, may be at elevated risk due to the effects of marijuana on the brain. People using marijuana to self-medicate should seek proper care from a qualified professional to accurately assess and direct them to appropriate and effective treatment options.

What about legalization?

Presently, marijuana is fully legal in eleven states. Even in those states, however, there are still restrictions. In states where marijuana is legal, it is still illegal for anyone under 18 years of age (and sometimes 21) to purchase the drug. In states where marijuana is legal, adults may purchase up to one ounce.

Marijuana and brain development

To fully understand the complexities of marijuana use, it is important to look at human brain development. The human brain is not fully developed until age twenty-five, and in many studies development is believed to continue to 29. That means even the majority of today’s college students are still undergoing physical changes in their brain.

Drug use can lead to physical changes in a person’s brain, and the earlier these changes happen, the more difficult, and sometimes impossible, they are to reverse. This means that anyone under the age of twenty-five risks permanent brain alteration by using marijuana.

Marijuana affects the human brain in many ways. It affects memory, judgment, and perception. Due to these effects, it is not uncommon for young adults to forget recently learned information such as an important conversation or educational instruction.  In addition, the dampening of the ability to properly judge a situation can cause poor decision-making that results in unwanted outcomes such as injuries.  Our team has worked with kids who have fallen off of cliffs, fallen off of moving cars, gone to parties with dangerous people, and initiated horrible fights with their loved ones when they were high. A recent study followed people from ages 13 to 38 and found that those who frequently used marijuana in their teens and continued into adulthood had a significant drop in IQ, even after they quit.

The American Psychological Association has this to say about marijuana and the teenage brain:

In the short term, marijuana use has been shown to impair functions such as attention, memory, learning, and decision-making. Those effects can last for days after the high wears off. Heavy marijuana use in adolescence or early adulthood has been associated with a dismal set of life outcomes including poor school performance, higher dropout rates, increased welfare dependence, greater unemployment, and lower life satisfaction.

Vaping and marijuana

Adults may also benefit from knowledge surrounding another, new trend in marijuana: vaping devices. Vaping is being called “the next great teen epidemic” and is raising concerns that we are creating a new generation of nicotine addicts. And while that alone is enough to concern many parents and guardians as well as other caring adults,  the dangers with vaping don’t end there. Millions of teens are also using electronic nicotine delivery systems (ENDS) to consume THC.

THC concentrates, also known as wax, shatter, dabs, hash oil, or live resin, are concentrated forms of THC. Most concentrates contain over 90% THC and require very little consumption in order to feel the potentially serious effects. Teens consume marijuana concentrates in many ways, but some new mainstream methods include via vape pens and e-cigarettes. The actual number of teens consuming THC through these methods is unclear (some research reveals that  20% of those who vape nicotine have gone on to use  marijuana in vaping devices.) Users who consume marijuana via ENDS  ingest higher concentrations of THC and have a greater potential for addiction.

Detecting when your teen is vaping marijuana can be difficult. Like with nicotine, vaping THC does not produce smoke. (A heated coil is used to vaporize the oil which is then consumed.) If your teen is consuming marijuana this way, you may not have the telltale cloud of smoke as the giveaway.  Vaping can be so subtle that teens have reported vaping in class when the teachers’ back is turned.

It’s important for  parents and guardians to be aware of the dangers of vaping nicotine and now, thanks to the tobacco industry, device production and increased access to concentrates, present young adults with even more difficult decisions to make in the face of escape behaviors and social pressures

Is marijuana a gateway drug?

Many adults have asked if marijuana a gateway drug and whether it leads to “harder” drug use.

While most people who smoke marijuana do not go on to use other drugs, long-term studies of high school students show that teens who use “harder” drugs began by smoking marijuana. Many of the young adults with whom we have spoken shared that they transitioned to harder drugs because their tolerance to marijuana increased and they needed more to feel the effects of a high.  Marijuana use is also linked to alcohol addiction and nicotine addiction. A phenomenon called cross-sensitization, in effect, “primes” the brain for enhanced or greater responses to other drugs such as morphine.

If your teen uses or has used marijuana, that does not mean they will go on to use more dangerous drugs. There are, however, lasting effects of consuming marijuana in the teen years that can and do make an impact throughout life.

The question of personal stories

It is natural for parents and guardians to want better for their children than they had for themselves, and this often includes past choices to indulge in illicit drug use. What is a parent to do when they don’t want their kids using marijuana but they didn’t follow that same advice in their own youth? Parents often report that they feel hypocritical in saying, “Don’t do as I did.”

These are difficult questions, and this can be challenging territory for parents to cover. In general, most parents want to be honest with their kids, but they also want their kids to stay away from drugs. When it comes to marijuana, some parents feel as though they are in a lose-lose situation.

Only you can decide what is right when it comes to sharing your drug experimentation stories with your teens. You know your kids better than anyone, and you can probably guess how they might respond to what you have to say.  Following are a few tips to help you make the right decision.

First, don’t feel like you have to tell your teen about your experiences. You are the parent. Though treating your teen with respect and honesty are important, they are not entitled to know everything about you or your past.  A good rule of thumb is to consider your reasons for telling them details. For example, are you telling them the details to look more relatable?  Are you sharing details to appear cooler?  Are you sharing details to relive the glory days?  Are you sharing your details because you are at a loss for anything else to say?  Everyone has their reasons, and only you can be your judge.  Exercise caution when using self-disclosure.

After considering your rationale, if you decide to share your stories, be sure to not glorify your experiences. If you decide to tell your teen about your experimentation, you do not have to give them all of the details. A good deflection statement can be something like, “I don’t feel comfortable talking about what I did when I was younger. I just don’t feel like bringing it into this conversation is helpful. I’ve had years to reflect on my choices, and I would have done things differently.”  Another statement can be, “I love you too much to waste your time talking about me. This is about you and your experiences.”

Deflecting unproductive conversation is not the same as lying. You can be honest with your teen and say, “My past and your current situation are completely different- so is marijuana. I’d prefer to keep this about today’s world.” Honesty is an important value- sharing your feelings in an honest way versus an authoritative stance will help to keep the conversation open.

Try to avoid statements like, “I don’t want to talk about it.”  Rather, an honest version of that statement can be, “I just feel like sharing that portion isn’t the right thing to do at this moment. I want to support you as best as I can and in my mind, this is how I’d like to proceed.”

It’s okay to use humility, i.e.  “I might be wrong, but I’m doing the best I can and in a way that feels right to me.”  In this situation, you are modeling healthy behavior as well as keeping their situation as the focal point.

In addition to guidance and support, part of a parents’ job is to keep their teen safe and help them to create a life of confidence and purpose. If telling your teen about your experiences will help get them to move closer to this goal, then use your skills to navigate the topic and go easy on yourself. You’re doing your best. Only you can decide what is best for you and your teen, but know that there is no reason to feel guilty for whatever you choose to do.

In regard to the medicinal versus recreational debate, regardless of your views of marijuana, it is best to not vilify the topic. This is true for several reasons. First, if you regard marijuana as a serious drug, your teen may perceive that you are being overly dramatic on the matter.  If you portray marijuana as something that kills kids every day, they will take your words as fear tactics and shut down the conversation.  The most effective conversations about marijuana occur within an emotionally neutral, and judgment-free context.

If your teen is struggling with depression or anxiety, this is an opportunity to open the door to the prospect of help and understanding. If your teen is self-medicating, praise them for wanting to feel better and then add that at some point, the cause of the problem will need to be addressed. If they are self-medicating, remain judgment neutral. Your teen may be in pain, and this is the only thing that is seemingly providing them some relief- even if it’s only temporarily. It is likely that they don’t know how to stop their struggles without marijuana. Offer compassion, empathy, and the willingness to stick with them through the process of healing.

If your teen is using marijuana for other purposes such as social recreation, it’s okay to inquire about the why.  For example, “Tell me about your choice to smoke. What do you get out of it?”  In some cases, you may get a shrug, but in others, and with persistence, you may learn a lot about your teen. The goal here is to help them figure out how they can have fun and feel joy without the use of a substance- regardless of the specifics.

These conversations, if done with patience and compassion, can also lead to discussions about healthy friendships and relationships in general.  If it does lead to relationship talk, be sure to also not vilify their friends as this will put them on the defensive and shut the door.  Helping your teen to discover themselves and their core values will help you sneak in your messaging while remaining empathic toward their plight.

Always have the tough talk

 We are in confusing times. For many reasons. When it comes to marijuana, the confusion can be compounded. Parents and guardians are being pushed outside of their comfort zones and are expected to talk about things they likely don’t understand themselves. Adults today did not have the technology, social media, marijuana concentrates, vaping devices, and all of the other add-ons that this generation has.

Feeling uncertain is normal. Your teen may be able to dance circles around you about a myriad of topics, but you hold the wisdom of experience. It’s more important to know how to talk as opposed to knowing the data and statistics.  In the end, if your message is clear and comes from a place of love and concern, your teen will hear you. Expect some potential resistance as that’s age appropriate, but know that you are making a difference.

Give your teen the facts as best as you can but ask a lot of questions. Let them feel like they have a say on the topic. When teens feel “talked at” they tend to shut down.  When you enlist their participation, you will notice a few more windows of opportunity for connection.

Unfortunately, you will continue to encounter difficult topics, but believing in your role as their guide is more important than getting it right. Take on the hard stuff. Because you have to. WE have to. Be relentless in your pursuit to connect.  Be relentless in your pursuit to support. Be relentless in the belief that you can do this. Because you can.

In the end, your teen will appreciate the fact that you care. They may not show it, but you’ll both be glad that for even a few moments, the conversation happened. Teens will appreciate the respect and autonomy you give when you approach these tough talks in this manner, and you may be surprised at the positive decisions they make as a result.